Judging by how much Paul cussed me out after filling his toolbox with cement, I accepted the possibility that I might not be cut out for a career in construction. Thankfully, I had other opportunities in the area to earn an income.
Located on the shores of Lake Huron, my hometown of Port Albert is in prime cottage country. As a result, I often found seasonal work with local cottagers. Usually that meant cutting grass, cleaning out boathouses or trimming hedges.
But there was also the time I got asked to be a valet. One of my regular lawn-mowing clients was throwing an anniversary party, and they needed someone to park the cars of their guests.
My employer’s cottage was situated at the bottom of a long, narrow, steep road with very little room for vehicles. So the plan was for me to greet guests as they arrived and then drive their vehicles back to a large grassy field at the top of the hill.
I quickly accepted their job offer, leaving out a minor detail regarding my qualifications: I had no idea how to drive stick. But seven bucks an hour was nothing to sniff at back then. And besides, how hard could it be?
I wouldn’t wait long to find out, as the first customer of the day drove a car with manual transmission.
I waited until the couple was inside the cottage before putting my grossly undeserved confidence to the test on the luxury vehicle. The sounds that emerged from that beautiful piece of machinery were grotesque. I sat in front of my boss’s cottage, sweat pouring off me, making the poor car scream in protest as I ground the gears to a pulp.
Somehow, I eventually got the car into first gear and started creeping up the steep hill. At the top, I pulled into the parking area, inconveniently located next to a steep embankment. However, as I approached the edge, my brain got confused by the extra pedal at my feet. And as a result, I stomped on the accelerator instead of the brakes.
I started screaming as the car sped toward the edge of the cliff. A second before Thelma and Louise-ing the car into the woods, I managed to find the brakes. The car slammed into the lawn chair I had brought and sent it flying. I threw the car into park and hurried down to attend to the next guest … who was also driving stick.
For humans, overconfidence is one of the biggest cognitive biases we face. Consider one study, which revealed that 93 per cent of U.S. drivers believe they’re better drivers than the median — a statistical impossibility.
An inflated sense of our abilities can create bigger problems than a mangled lawn chair. Overconfidence in the accuracy of your beliefs can make you less open to other points of view. Overconfidence in your investments can result in buying a house beyond your means. And overconfidence in your navigating skills can lead you down a dangerous back alley that you’ve convinced yourself is a shortcut.
Overconfidence can have impacts on a much larger scale as well. Hubris put the “unsinkable” Titanic on a collision course with the iceberg. Armchair experts who thought they knew better than scientists flouted pandemic lockdown measures. Arrogant assumptions that downplayed the threat of climate change delayed action for decades.
Confidence isn’t a bad thing. Far from it. But when you’re facing an obstacle, be sure to temper that confidence with a healthy dose of humility. Accepting that you’re a work in progress and don’t have all the answers creates space to learn and grow, while reducing the sting when things don’t go the way you planned.
Humility definitely played an important role while I was fighting leukemia. This was all new to me, so I never pretended I knew more than I did. That meant being okay with asking “silly” questions. I also reminded myself not to get too cocky when my blood counts were looking good. Appreciating how precarious things were helped me deal with bumps along the way.
Excessive certainty about something is asking for trouble. At best, the rigid expectations that come with overconfidence will leave you disappointed. At worst, you’ll end up driving someone else’s car over the edge of a cliff.